Garrett VeneKlasen announced plans to run for New Mexico Commissioner for State Lands on Friday morning. “We are in a state of crisis in New Mexico, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that,” said VeneKlasen. He is currently executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, which represents sportsmen and women across the state and is focused on the conservation of water, lands and wildlife. “I was tired of wringing my hands and complaining about how things are run in that office, and I have some really good and visionary new ideas.”
The State Land Office administers 9 million acres of surface lands and 13 million acres of subsurface mineral rights. Those lands are managed for beneficiaries of the state land trust, which include schools, universities and hospitals. Aubrey Dunn, a Republican, is the incumbent and can run for a second term next year.
If you saw this week’s wrap up of New Mexico’s most important environment news (which you definitely should read) you’ll have noticed a picture of the Four Corners Power Plant from the 1970s. That photo and thousands more are from the Documerica Project. In the 1970s, the brand-new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hired freelance photographers to document pollution, everyday life and the agency’s activities. The U.S. National Archives digitized more than 15,000 photographs from the series and included them in their online catalog. Many of the images show how air pollution was affecting cities and illustrate the unhealthy environmental conditions that low-income and communities of color live with on a daily basis. There are photos of coal miners and a discouragingly-contaminated Baltimore Harbor in 1973 and from Louisville in 1972, when thousands of people had to be evacuated after a barge carrying liquid chlorine threatened to spill.
In a letter to New Mexico’s legislative leaders yesterday, State Auditor Tim Keller summarized the state’s largest tax breaks and their distribution by size. About half of the revenue that the state does not collect as a result of tax breaks comes from three sources: extractive industry tax breaks, two broad gross receipts tax breaks and the exemption of nonprofit organizations from gross receipts taxes. Tax exemptions for a range of extractive industries, such as mining and drilling, comprises 27 percent of all tax breaks and total nearly $400 million. Compiled by the Office of the State Auditor, the data came from the New Mexico Tax and Revenue Department. But finding it was not easy.
National policies always affect New Mexico’s lands and natural resources, especially during times of uncertainty. In the 1940s, for example, military and nuclear interests honed in on the state’s lands and natural resources. The U.S. government established what became Los Alamos National Laboratory on Pajarito Plateau in 1943, and detonated the first atomic bomb two years later near Alamogordo. White Sands Missile Range, which encompasses 3,200 square miles, was created in the 1940s, as were the military bases in Albuquerque and Clovis, now called Kirtland and Cannon. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news right now.
This Sunday, people gathered at a spot along the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico to nurture a small habitat restoration project and remember three Silver City teens who died in a plane crash three years ago. The mission of the Butterfly Way, located at The Nature Conservancy’s Gila River Farm, is to enhance the river corridor with native flowers, trees and milkweed that will benefit pollinators, including monarch butterflies. “It’s sort of a community effort to beautify a piece of the floodplain that had been highly hammered and damaged over time by different agricultural land uses,” said Patrice Mutchnick, mother of Ella Jaz Kirk. “We started planting pretty quickly after the kids passed. We drew up a five-year plan how to restore this area, and are using the monarch as the cornerstone of the project.”
At first, it was just family members, but over time, Mutchnick said they’ve invited more neighbors and friends, student groups and community members, to come to the farm.
First there’s a spark, and then the fire. We all stare at the sky, smell the smoke. After the trees and brush and roots are gone, floods roar through arroyos and down hillsides. Weeds invade as soon as the ground has cooled. Often, the long-term changes aren’t that obvious, especially when compared with flames and floods.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry traveled to New Mexico last week, visiting Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The Los Alamos Daily Post reported the Perry, former governor of Texas, “praised the national labs as a whole and said every country should have at least one lab like the ones we have in the United States.”
Perry also said he was an “extension of the administration” when it comes to climate change: “You’re going to see new ways … to use highly untechnical terms, we’re going to continue to throw some jello at the walls in different places and in different ways because from time to time, you’ll find answers to things you had no idea you were going to find solutions to,” he said. Perry praised nuclear power, did not discount the possibility of expanded nuclear weapon production and said he was surprised by how little people know about the Energy Department. In southern New Mexico, Perry toured the Energy Department’s Carlsbad Field Office and the underground nuclear waste repository.
It doesn’t take an expert to see that the Rio Grande is swelling over its channel, spreading water into the bosque and nurturing the next generation of cottonwood trees. That overbanking is good for endangered species like the Rio Grande silvery minnow and other more prominent species like cottonwood, said David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), which delivers water to farmers and the six pueblos in the valley. “On the other hand, it makes us nervous about the levees,” he said. For more than 40 miles in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, the river is up against its levees. And the Rio Grande is still rising.
It’s not clear if the state of New Mexico is worried about a potential loss of federal funds, even as other states voice concern over a review ordered by Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior. Last month, the Missoulian reported that officials at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks were worried about how a memo signed by U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will affect the department. The memo required a review of all grants more than $100,000. According to the story: The Department of Interior annually distributes $5.5 billion in grants and cooperative agreements, according to the memorandum Zinke signed on April 12 and which took effect on April 19. Zinke, a Montana resident and former congressman, said in the memo that he was issuing the directive to help him “ … understand the immense impact grants and cooperative agreements have on the mission delivery of the Department.” Although the memo says the “procedures are temporary” and that business as usual would return “as soon as possible,” no end date is given.
U.S. Senators voted against overturning a rule aimed at cutting methane waste from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands Wednesday morning. The surprise defeat of the effort was on a 49-51 vote, with Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voting along with Democrats to keep the rule. Note: This is a developing story and we will update as new information comes to light and members of New Mexico’s delegation react. As we reported yesterday, both of New Mexico’s senators oppose overturning the rule. Both Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are Democrats.